49ers begin FA moves with three tender offers

The 49ers aren't going to let Maurice Hicks just walk away without further consideration. As the team began making its moves Tuesday in lieu of the start of free agency Friday, the versatile Hicks was one of two restricted free agents tendered offers by San Francisco, which also tendered one of its two exclusive rights free agents.

The 49ers also tendered offers to restricted free-agent punter Andy Lee and exclusive rights free-agent offensive lineman Tony Wragge.

But the most consequential decision was to tender Hicks, the fourth-year running back/kick returner/special teams ace to whom the 49ers offered a contract extension late last season. Hicks was looking for better money than the team was offering and declined to sign, deciding to keep his options open knowing that he has value that will attract attention from other teams around the NFL.

The 49ers tendered Hicks - who was an undrafted free agent coming out of college - at the low amount of $850,000. Lee, the fourth-year punter who improved steadily in each of his first three seasons, also was tendered at the low amount.

Restricted free agents are players that have completed three accrued seasons of NFL service and whose contracts have expired. Now that they have received qualifying offers from the 49ers, Hicks and Lee will be free to negotiate with any other NFL team until April 27 - the day before the 2007 NFL draft begins. After that date, their rights will revert back to the 49ers. They also can negotiate with the 49ers during that period.

If either Hicks or Lee accepts an offer sheet from another team, the 49ers will have the right to match the offer and retain their services. Because Hicks was undrafted and tendered at the low amount, the 49ers would receive no draft-pick compensation if he were to sign with another team. But by tendering him, the 49ers can now see for themselves what the market really is for Hicks' services, then decide if it is worth it to the team to match any potential offer and bring Hicks back in 2007 and, most likely, beyond.

It's a difference scenario with Lee, who was drafted in the sixth round by the 49ers in 2004. If Lee were to get an offer from another team that the 49ers decided not to match, the 49ers would receive a sixth-round draft pick in 2007 as compensation. That's the virtue of tendering restricted free agents qualifying offers.

The 49ers avoided a similar situation with fourth-year safety Keith Lewis - another player selected in the sixth round by the team in 2004 - by re-signing Lewis to a three-year, $2.935 million deal with a $650,000 signing bonus earlier this month.

The Niners, however, declined to tender an offer to fourth-year restricted free agent Mike Adams, who now becomes an unrestricted free agent who can negotiate with any NFL team. Adams, who began last season as San Francisco's starting free safety and was viewed as a player on the rise, struggled after a solid start to the season, eventually lost his starting job to Lewis and basically played his way out of the team's future plans.

The 49ers still may consider signing Adams back to the team if he does not attract offers on the open market, but the team is intent on upgrading at the safety position. The 49ers had tried to sign Adams to a contract extension early last season when he was playing well, but it was an offer viewed as backup money and Adams balked at signing then when his value appeared to be higher.

The 49ers also tendered exclusive rights free agent Wragge, who started four games at guard and center last season and established himself as a legitimate NFL offensive lineman who made significant contributions on one of the team's strongest units.

Now that he has been tendered a qualifying offer, Wragge can negotiate only with the 49ers. As an exclusive rights free agent, Wragge can not speak with other teams and has no other NFL options open to him in 2007 other than dealing with the 49ers. But he could decide just to sign the one-year tender and hope for a better payday in the future if the Niners don't offer him more than a one-year deal.

In other 49ers news Tuesday:

--- Robert Talley, the 49ers' special assistant to head coach Mike Nolan the past two seasons, will leave the team after accepting an offer to become the head coach at Stonehill College in Massachusetts.

--- Veteran linebacker Derek Smith underwent surgery to repair a damaged muscle in his left eye, a condition that limited his vision. Smith played the entire season with the ailment, but it had an adverse effect on his performance.

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